Desserts 101

“The trick is not to burn yourself,” says Joyce Gaidas as she coaxes a piece of translucent, golden pulled sugar the size of a quarter from the puttylike blob she’s kneading under a heat lamp. She works it between her thumb and forefinger until it vaguely resembles a flower petal, then painstakingly makes five more pieces, sticking them together to form an edible rose–ready to top a wedding cake.

Gaidas is a certified public accountant with a master’s degree in marketing and a small baby at home. She’s one of 13 students in their 19th week of a 24-week course at the French Pastry School, all gingerly pinching petals from their hot, tough blobs of sugar. Earlier this morning, Jacquy Pfeiffer demonstrated how to simmer sugar, water, a bit of corn syrup, and a dab of food coloring at precisely 312 degrees Fahrenheit until a ball forms. Now they get to exercise their artistic skills.

“Once they can handle this,” says Pfeiffer, “they can do anything with sugar. They need to get over the fear first.”

In previous sessions the students have learned to make French cakes and biscuits, breakfast pastries, ice creams, and candies. They’ve worked for weeks with every form of chocolate–even spraying it with a gun. When they graduate in a few more weeks, they’ll have certificates from one of the most respected specialty culinary schools in the country and entree to well-paid work in a demanding field.

The school is run by Pfeiffer and Sebastien Canonne, both internationally honored dessert chefs who sport more medals than Colin Powell. Pfeiffer, 40, was born into the business in Strasbourg, France. He worked as pastry chef for the royal family of Saudi Arabia and the sultan of Brunei, then for a string of hotels around the world. Thirty-two-year-old Canonne, born in Amiens, began work at 15 in hot food, switching specialties two years later after apprenticing at the famed Paris pastry shop Gaston Lenotre. He went on to multistar restaurants in France and Switzerland, then to the Palais de l’Elysee to bake for Francois Mitterand.

“You cannot really do both jobs, hot food and pastry,” says Canonne. “Even in pastry there are so many specialties–chocolatier, glacier [ice cream maker], cake maker–people make careers out of each one.”

The two met nine years ago while competing against each other in one of the arcane contests that permeate the world of haute cuisine. Canonne was then executive pastry chef at the Ritz-Carlton; Pfeiffer was at the Fairmont, soon to move to the Sheraton Chicago. They never competed against each other again, but they worked together on various teams: Pfeiffer led the U.S. World Cup team (that included Canonne) against 16 other nations in Lyon and brought back a silver medal.

In 1996 they decided to open the school, recognizing the paucity of pastry talent in the States. “There’s such a huge need in this country,” says Pfeiffer. “For every ten jobs there are only two, three, four trained people.” Canonne adds, “When you are the executive chef at a place like the Ritz-Carlton, you are mainly a teacher anyway. That’s most of what you are doing–instructing and training your staff.”

One of Canonne’s trainees worked out exceptionally well: En-Ming Hsu, who succeeded to his position at the Ritz when he left. This year Hsu led the U.S. team to its first gold medal at Lyon. She also teaches at the school.

Pfeiffer and Canonne’s first location was a loft at Grand and Racine. In 1999 they moved into the City Colleges of Chicago’s cavernous space at Jackson and Franklin, having arranged to operate as a private corporation within the system: they’d get to offer their program as a fully accredited college course, while City Colleges would enjoy the prestige of having a renowned pastry team teaching its classes. This fall they’ll fold completely into the City Colleges system, heading the pastry programs offered at all the colleges, including Washburne Culinary Institute.

In addition to the certificate program, Canonne and Pfeiffer run a series of intensive three-day sessions focused on single specialties such as petits fours, chocolate desserts, and plated desserts and competition preparation–the last class taught by Hsu. “The students are mostly professionals,” says Canonne, “but some are serious home cooks.” They also do consulting work for restaurants such as Le Francais, just to keep busy.

With a tuition charge of $13,156, not including books, the certificate program also tends to attract professionals. Maureen Valker, who moved here from Arizona to attend the school, is an assistant pastry chef at Naha. Brad VanMeerten, 21, has worked in various restaurants since he was 15 and has had the yen to specialize in pastry for the past few years. Susan Taves has had her own catering business on and off for the past 18 years, and Juliana Zaremba is an instructor at Washburne.

But this time there are also some beginners. Twenty-five-year-old Mary Ho is unsure whether she wants to make this her career, “but I’ve always been interested in baking. This is really fun for me.” Scientist Tracy Bohrer, 28, wants to open her own pastry shop.

And Gaidas, like Bohrer and almost half their classmates, is a “life-changer,” following her heart into a sweet new profession. “I may want to do the whole chef thing,” she says, “but I definitely want to stay with pastry for a while.”

The French Pastry School is at 226 W. Jackson, 312-726-2419.

–Don Rose

The Dish

We, a 70-seat American contemporary restaurant run by John Nichols, former managing partner at Okno, is scheduled to open Tuesday, June 5, at 172 W. Adams, inside one of Chicago’s two new W Hotels.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.